Judges say no to law enforcement union efforts to keep police records secret

In the past couple of weeks, judges in Los Angeles and Contra Costa counties have denied attempts by police unions to prevent access to misconduct records required to be disclosed under SB 1421, the recently enacted law sponsored by CNPA.

Contra Costa County Judge Superior Court Charles Treat and Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff ordered the disclosure of records concerning internal investigations into shootings by officers, severe uses of force and confirmed cases of sexual assault and lying by officers.

As expected, both judges immediately stayed their orders to allow the unions to appeal the decisions.

CNPA joined the Los Angeles Times, Digital First Media, the First Amendment Coalition and KQED as intervening parties in the Los Angeles litigation.

In addition to Los Angeles and Contra Costa counties police unions in the counties of Ventura, San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange have gone to court to try to block the disclosure of records created prior to January 1, 2019 the effective date of the new law.

The unions argue that public access to police personnel records prior to January 1 violate police officer’s privacy rights and officers accused of wrongdoing made potentially career-altering decisions about whether to appeal their discipline based on an understanding that their cases would remain private.

In his ruling, Judge Beckloff disagreed with union’s arguments saying, “The unambiguous language [in the statute] demonstrates the operation of SB 1421 has nothing to do with the date on which a personnel record was created – it applies to all records.”

The law’s author, Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) argues that SB 1421 removes confidentiality from any records held by an agency, regardless of when they were created.

Judge Treat agreed.

“Such a chronological distinction would make sense if, but only if, the Legislature thought that the police were entitled to conceal the records of their actions before this year,” Treat wrote. “The text of the new statute says nothing to suggest that that is what the Legislature thought, and it makes very little sense to assume that that is what the Legislature meant.”
In the Orange County action, the Los Angeles Times, Voice of Orange County and Southern California Public Radio were permitted to intervene at the hearing on the union’s petition. A ruling is expected any day.

In Sacramento, the Los Angeles Times and the Sacramento Bee filed a CPRA lawsuit against Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones after he denied their request for misconduct records. Unlike the reverse CPRA actions brought by the police unions, the case could take several months before it is first heard in a Sacramento courtroom.

Additionally, after California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced his office would not release any records until the courts resolved the issue, the First Amendment Coalition filed a CPRA lawsuit against the Attorney General challenging his decision.

There has been a handful of law enforcement agencies that have complied with the new law including the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office and the San Bernardino, Santa Barbara, Burlingame, Fairfield, Salinas and Cathedral City police departments.

Regardless of how the trial courts rule, it is likely that the decisions will all be appealed to the Court of Appeal and ultimately to the state Supreme Court.